Some slogans are invented by marketing folks to help shape a company's image. Others simply relay the truth. SAAB stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, so the cars were indeed "born from jets," as the company's advertising once boasted. The "find your own road" campaign couldn't have been more appropriate, although "we at Saab found our own road" might have been more accurate.
If there's one thing Swedish engineers did best, it was ignore conventions. Saab's own road -- in retrospect a bumpy path to a bankrupt dead end -- once looked to be among the most interesting in the automotive universe. Nostalgically speaking, it's a memory lane best taken in the original 900, which was an evolution of the 99, the car that made Saab a household name and solidified the brand's unconventional reputation.
It might not have had a two-stroke three-cylinder or a V-4 like earlier Saabs, but the 900's otherwise conventional in-line four-cylinder is mounted longitudinally. That alone is unusual in a front-wheel-drive car, but the engine is also installed backward and leaning at a 45-degree angle. Intentionally, no less. The transaxle is mounted underneath, driven via a chain at the front of the car, leaving the belt-driven accessories sandwiched against the firewall. The Turbo's exhaust manifold is "conventional," meaning that it exits toward the rear of the engine. Therefore, in the backward 900, the hot gases blow forward toward the passenger-side headlight before making a tight U-turn at the turbocharger, coming ridiculously close to the heat-sensitive battery on their way to the back of the car.
The leaning tower of powertrain is mounted almost completely ahead of the axle, resulting in a long front overhang that somehow looks normal when attached to the rest of what editor-in-chief Jean Jennings called the "nutso shape" while describing the 900 twenty-five years ago. She conceded that it was "a gas to look at." It still is, even though its basic lines date back to the 1969 Saab 99.
The 900 is effectively a stretched 99, and like that car, its shape and the location of its engine make for an impossibly spacious cabin. Flat, vertical body sides create a large greenhouse, and, thanks to a wraparound windshield, the A-pillars stay out of the driver's typical line of sight. Hatchback models have the cargo versatility of a small van, with rear seats that fold into a flat floor that's ideal for Ikea runs.
Every button and control on the 900's flat dashboard is well placed and offers perfect tactile feedback. The gauges are softly lit in green, and some 900s include something special: a boost gauge.
The Saab Turbo -- introduced on the 99 and continued with the 900 -- was one of the first turbocharged mass-production engines. Following the low-volume 1960s General Motors engines and the expensive 1970s Porsche 911 Turbo, it was Saab that truly brought turbocharged power to mainstream buyers.
Except, of course, nothing about Saab's vehicles was mainstream. The 900's sills are actually part of the doors, so you don't get your pants dirty when getting out in bad weather. Saab introduced the seat heater to the world; it was also the first to install a cabin air filter and headlight washers. The 900 Turbo was the first car to use knock sensors to control boost (a system Saab called APC), and it's the only car to ever pull off three-spoke wheels. That alone is a significant achievement.
The 900 was in production for nearly fifteen years, and the later models have countless small upgrades that Saab made along the way (practical things such as moving the emergency brake from the front to the rear wheels). Even with those improvements, the 900 lost none of the quirks that make it unique (like the front cornering lights that illuminate when the transmission is in reverse).
The car photographed here is one of the very last -- a 1993 Commemorative Edition 900 Turbo. Saab planned to build 325 of these two-door hatchbacks, but the company apparently gave up after only 314. Why be normal? (There were also 500 Commemorative Edition convertibles produced the next year.)
Chris Zappala, the coupe's owner, made a few changes, such as removing the foglights and the wooden dash applique. The $33,065 CE came fully loaded, with black paint and a tan leather interior, gray wheels, and a sport suspension. It also received the most powerful engine ever installed in a U.S.-market 900. The 2.0-liter sixteen-valve unit produced 185 hp and 201 lb-ft of torque, more than the base 900 Turbo (160 hp, 188 lb-ft) and the 900 Turbo SPG (175 hp, 195 lb-ft).
There's a ton of turbo lag, but learn to drive around it and the 900 is a very quick car -- and one with surprisingly little torque steer, at least when the steering wheel is pointed straight. Dial in a couple degrees of lock, and the front wheels will scramble toward the nearest curb like a frightened dog. The ride is very supple by the big-wheel, low-sidewall standards of modern sport sedans. The shifter is remarkably accurate, the brake pedal is firm, and the distinctive Saab four-cylinder soundtrack is well muted from inside the cabin. That deep exhaust note brought back a flood of memories as I walked toward Zappala's idling car. That's because half of my childhood was spent in my mother's black-on-tan 1981 Saab 900 Turbo sedan -- and the other half watching it bob around on the back of a flatbed tow truck. I brought my mom along for this drive, and neither of us was surprised when the 900 Turbo greeted us by stalling the instant I touched the door handle. The words for "roadside assistance" and "welcome back" in the Trollhaettan dialect of Swedish might be the same.
But the words "quirky" and "charming" also seem to be interchangeable. Few cars since the Saab 900 have had so much personality. Today, the auto industry has been reduced to a few main players, all of whom have gone down the same reliable, efficient, and inexpensive path to building indistinguishable, unimaginative cars. Saab truly went its own way, got lost, and broke down -- but it made some of the world's coolest cars in the process. In the words of the late founder of Automobile Magazine, David E. Davis, Jr., in a review of the original 1978 Saab Turbo: "If you have never driven a Saab, you have been culturally deprived for too long. You owe this to yourself." Now there's a slogan Saab could have used.
2.0L SOHC I-4, 110-115 hp, 119-123 lb-ft
2.0L DOHC I-4, 125-128 hp, 123-128 lb-ft
2.1L DOHC I-4, 140 hp, 133 lb-ft
2.0L SOHC turbo I-4, 135 hp, 160-172 lb-ft
2.0L DOHC turbo I-4, 160-185 hp, 188-201 lb-ft
4- or 5-speed manual 3-speed automatic
Control arms, coil springs
Torsion beam, coil springs
Some 900,000 worldwide, of which about one-quarter were turbocharged
$8198 (1979 coupe), $40,875 (1994 Commemorative Edition convertible)
$1500-$8000 (Turbocharged cars and convertibles are worth the most.)
No other Saab matched the 900's combination of quirky and livable -- and the fifteen-year run is proof that being different can work. It was inordinately expensive toward the end of its life, but the 900 was also extraordinarily well-equipped. It's just as cool to drive as it is to look at, and owning one tells the world you're an independent thinker. With a good mechanic. On the bright side, today's reliable turbocharged cars have turbo Saabs (and their patient owners) to thank for doing so much real-world R&D.